Narratives of Learning to Teach: Taking on Professional Identities

Feb. 15, 2013

Source: Journal of Teacher Education, 64(1), p. 35-46 January/February 2013
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This article examines the written narratives and poetry of new teachers in two different pathways into teaching to deepen our knowledge about how teachers construct a professional identity, to further understand the role of narrative and inquiry in teacher learning, and to add to conversations about the design of teacher preparation programs.

The Narrative Writing Group comprises 15 teachers and 2 teacher educators (the authors) who met one to two times per month for one academic year. Within this group of 1st-year teachers were 4 teachers from Teach for America (TFA) and 11 from the University teacher education program. The authors wanted to learn about the processes of learning to teach from and with the teachers themselves.
Throughout the academic year, participants attended the group and wrote during our sessions and the intervening months. At three points in the year, the participants engaged in “writing marathons”—a writing process developed by the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project in which teachers travel to several designated locations in a selected neighborhood, writing in small groups for several hours.
The authors also documented the meetings themselves through detailed field notes and audio recordings of sessions.
Finally, they supplemented these data through the interviews from the Learning to Teach research project that included several, although not all, of the participants.


The authors began the Narrative Writing Group with the goal of gathering stories about new teachers’ experiences of learning to teach. When they began this project, there were two distinct groups of people learning to teach at our University, teachers enrolled in a preservice program and teachers in a certification and master’s degree program for TFA.
An analysis of these teachers’ narratives reveals that their professional identities were shaped by their membership in a range of knowledge communities, including the Narrative Writing Group and also their schools, network of friends, and the University and TFA programs. New teachers brought their autobiographies as well as their short- or long-term goals of becoming a teacher to their experiences of learning to teach. The narratives of professional identity development were shaped in relationship to other people, including mentor teachers and students. As teachers told and retold their stories of learning to teach, they told stories of particular moments and of relationships.
The narratives from the two different programs were different, yet similar. They revealed different processes for taking on a teacher identity and different time frames for claiming that stance. For instance, teachers in the university- based program described learning to teach and taking on professional identities in relation to their mentor teachers whose classroom they shared. This stood in sharp contrast to the experience of their TFA peers, who did not have mentors to imitate and learn from and were not given the time to observe an experienced teacher. When asked how they learned to teach, TFA corps members often said that they drew on models from their own experiences as students, which were often in very different contexts.

By the end of the year, teachers in both programs were no longer ambivalent about their identities as teachers. The authors learned from these teachers about the importance of explicitly addressing the notion of teaching as professional practice. We discovered that neither program included opportunities for analyzing and understanding this process while teachers were learning to teach. Although claiming to teach professional habits such as arriving on time and dressing appropriately, neither program allowed enough space for discussions about the acquisition of a professional identity and the dimensions of professional practice. While all the teachers in the university program saw themselves as teachers for at least several years, some of the teachers in the alternative route program shared this image of their future selves. Although the TFA teachers were anointed as teachers from the beginning, each group wanted to feel like authentic teachers. Teachers in both groups wrote about their struggles to understand how and when they became teachers, along with what becoming a teacher entailed.
Each of the teachers in the group had a different story to tell about learning to teach and becoming a professional. The stories are both highly individual and reflective of larger themes within this small group and across the urban teacher preparation programs in which they were enrolled. As a result, the narratives told from insiders’ perspectives, as well as the range of stories, are not only instructive to the teachers themselves but also to other new teachers and teacher educators. The salience of the process of writing and telling stories cannot be separated from these stories of learning to teach.

Across the United States, teacher educators, policy makers, school leaders, and other constituents are engaged in discussions about what teachers need to learn and experience before they enter the profession. Set against the larger narratives of accountability and standardization, these small stories illustrate how new teachers develop professional identities. Alternative certification programs, such as TFA, have grown in size and stature; undergraduate and master’s programs located in colleges and universities are under scrutiny for how well they prepare teachers for the realities of schools, particularly those in urban settings. In this Narrative Writing Groups, teachers from both programs took on professional identities at different moments in their careers and in different ways. The attainment of this identity is important so that teachers have authority as curriculum designers in their local classrooms, creating knowledge while also providing conditions for youth to construct their own understandings. Teaching is a complex and ever-changing activity that requires teachers to respond to their students and the curriculum strategically and in the moment.
Furthermore, while in teacher education programs, they are rarely given the opportunity to discuss and reflect on teaching as a profession and their acquisition of a professional identity. The importance of the focus and explicit introduction of teaching as professional practice into teacher preparation calls into question the design of alternative programs that are based on the premise that teachers will remain in classrooms for just 2 years. Understanding the processes through which teachers take on their professional identities and finding ways to support teachers to understand and embrace these processes through explicit conversation, writing, and colleagueship in teacher preparation programs is an essential first step.

Updated: Mar. 07, 2016